The Sega Master System was released in 1986 as an answer to the Nintendo Entertainment System and was Sega's second home console overall, following the largely unsuccessful SG-1000. While its impact in Japan and North America was minimal, the Master System did prove to be wildly successful in Europe and Brazil (where it still gets re-releases today), giving Sega a foothold in the market to go alongside their popularity in the arcades. Unfortunately, it also faced a large disadvantage owing to Nintendo forcing most prominent third-party developers to make games exclusively for the NES owing to restrictive exclusivity contracts, so the Master System's library was almost entirely developed in-house by Sega themselves. It was also a disappointment for me in that regard - whereas the most prominent NES games used the system's hardware to its fullest and produced some of the most impressive games of their time that hold up surprisingly well today, Sega seemed instead to mostly go for inferior downports of games they had on other platforms (whether arcade or their later Sega Genesis), and as a result they felt like they were being held back by the limitations of the hardware rather than using it to their advantage. So, despite having more powerful hardware than the NES in most respects, the Master System's library felt very underwhelming in comparison. The handful of games that were built to work with the system's strengths rather than fight against its limitations managed to be pretty good, though, so let's take a look at my favorite examples of those.
HM. Lemmings (DMA Design/Probe Software, 1992)
Lemmings is a ridiculously popular puzzle game from this time period with a simple enough premise - get a quota of the critters safely to the goal while keeping them out of harm's way. To that end, you assign them various jobs - digging through dirt, building staircases, giving them umbrellas so they can safely drop a long distance, setting one up as a roadblock so they have to turn and go the other way, or even blowing themselves up to clear an obstacle. The levels do get deceptively hard later on, though, requiring some very fast thinking to succeed. This version also has a whole bunch of new exclusive levels, making it worth checking out even if you've finished the whole game (and its numerous expansions) on other platforms.
10. Fantasy Zone: The Maze (Sega, 1987)
Before there was Sonic and hell, before there was even Alex Kidd, Opa-Opa of Fantasy Zone fame more or less served as Sega's mascot, having a prominent presence in arcades and on their consoles. The third game to be released was a definite changeup in style, basically taking the dots-in-a-maze format of Pac-Man and mixing Fantasy Zone elements in. You move around and collect coins, which you can spend at shops to purchase upgrades for Opa-Opa's movement speed, or even weapons to destroy enemies instead of having to simply avoid them. Enemies will also continually respawn from marked "Power Zones" on each board, which you can reset momentarily by flying over them, slowing them from appearing. A strange experiment that mostly works.
9. Gangster Town (Sega, 1987)
One of the Master System's most prominent peripherals was the Light Phaser - a more advanced light gun than the NES Zapper, as it required far less screen flicker to work and you could even play two player co-op in some games by plugging in two guns rather than one (it was also modeled on ones seen in Zillion, though ironically neither of the Zillion games on the platform actually use it). Gangster Town is my favorite of all the games it supports, though - shooting it out with Gangsters, then shooting down their spirits so they don't go to heaven, and you're being scored on accuracy and taking out enemies before they damage you. Fun stuff, and it also supports two players, so you can compete with a friend while you try to hit the score quota in each stage.
8. Ninja Gaiden (SIMS, 1992)
Yep, there was a Ninja Gaiden game on the Master System, though it wasn't a port of one of the NES games or even the original arcade beat-em-up (the latter of which had a planned but ultimately canceled Genesis port). It's certainly modeled more on the former, with platforming, powerups that run off an energy meter, between-level cutscenes and the ability to scale walls, though you use a Batman or Super Metroid style wall jump this time rather than simply climbing them. It's also thankfully not nearly as punishing as its NES counterparts - it's still a challenge in the later stages, but it feels fair rather than aggravatingly cheap for the most part. It's a bit of a rare and expensive title these days, but Ninja Gaiden on Master System is a fun and mostly forgotten branch of the series that's worth a look.
7. Master of Darkness (SIMS, 1993)
You can probably tell right away that Master of Darkness is a game heavily inspired by Castlevania - the overall design is similar, having you collect main weapon power-ups (in the form of entirely new weapons) and sub-weapons that run off of a limited ammunition supply. You smash floating objects to find said powerups, go up and down a lot of stairwells, and fight all sorts of undead and supernatural monsters before eventually battling Dracula himself in the final stage. Yes, it's a pretty shameless copycat of Konami's popular platformer franchise, but in this case, I'm okay with that; after all, Konami couldn't make one themselves on the Master System, but SIMS had the tools to make a surprisingly competent ripoff at their disposal, so why not go ahead and do it?
6. Power Strike II (Compile, 1993)
A followup to Power Strike (Aleste), though confusingly it's not a port of Aleste II or even a port of the Game Gear title of the same name; rather, it's a game created exclusively for the Master System and only released in Europe. As one would expect from Compile, though, it's a blisteringly-fast shooter with tons of powerups, crazy boss fights and good graphics and music, making it one of the best shmups on the platform by a wide margin. It's a shame this game is so rare and expensive nowadays, as it really is a unique and fun title on the platform; however, it has since been rereleased on a Japanese compilation for Switch and PS4 called "Aleste Collection", so check it out there!
5. Golden Axe Warrior (Sega, 1991)
Golden Axe was an arcade beat-em-up that made a big splash in the '80s, standing alongside Double Dragon and Final Fight as the biggest names in the genre at that time. I don't think anyone expected that it would get an action-RPG spinoff on the Master System, but I'm certainly glad it did. Sega did an excellent job copying Zelda's format and having it take advantage of the Master System's more powerful hardware, with nicely detailed sprites and animation to complement the puzzle-solving and dungeon crawling action. It has a few things Zelda doesn't - you can cast spells to damage enemies, open hidden passages or restore a small amount of health in a pinch, and you can travel across water with canoes (or, later on, a ship). It's a pretty scarce game to come by these days, but was included on Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection as a bonus, so there is another option available.
4. Fantasy Zone 2 (Sega, 1987)
Finally, an arcade port that lives up to the quality of the original. Not just in its smooth gameplay and accurate hit detection, but in its colorful, imaginative and surreal world, with surprisingly smooth animation and scrolling throughout. The game is built on the same model as the original - destroying enemies, buying power-ups and battling bosses - but now with multiple layers to each stage that you travel between via warps. You're also not immediately whisked away to the boss once you've destroyed all the foes, so you can backtrack to the shop to arm up if you wish (not a bad idea, as many of these bossses are surprisingly tricky to defeat). One of Sega's finest early games and easily one of the best on the Master System.
3. Phantasy Star (Sega, 1988)
One of the very first Japanese RPGs to be localized, and it proved a big enough hit to prompt Sega to bring over the rest of the series in later years too. It isn't hard to see why after you play it, either - built on the model of games like Wizardry with its 3D maze dungeons and even a pretty similar UI, it wowed with its impressive, smooth-scrolling graphics, detailed enemy sprites and even a surprisingly captivating narrative. Its world was a unique one too, melding elements of fantasy and science fiction (more than a bit reminiscent of Star Wars in aesthetic) together into something truly unique. You even got to command three different vehicles to traverse the worlds and reach items that were otherwise inaccessible, which was a pretty fun touch.
2. Final Bubble Bobble (Taito, 1991)
Another classic arcade game that made its way to the Master System, albeit with some very significant changes made. While still very much playable in two-player mode, the game now also features many more hidden secrets, a number of new powerups and changing up the format to include more boss fights and even an extended campaign that combines the hard and normal modes into one big 200-stage game. This also requires you to enter a number of secret rooms and collect items to succeed, but you can get the good ending even if playing solo; a bit contradictory to the stated goal of the original game, but oh well. A very good version of a classic.
1. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Sega, 1990)
I've sung the praises of Ultima IV too many times to count, but it really can't be said enough that it's one of the greatest and most important RPGs ever made. Its story was a step away from the usual "power up and beat the big bad" trope into a bolder place - that of self-improvement as you completed a personal quest to become a shining example to the people of Britannia - and it was very well executed too. You actually had to show valor in combat, compassion and humility and sacrifice in your dealings with NPCs, and Honor by not intentionally harming innocents (including monsters that may attack you). Unlike the NES version, which adapted its gameplay to be more in line with Japanese RPGs like Dragon Quest, the Master System version was basically a straight port, recreating the computer versions nearly point-for-point while adding enhanced graphics and music. This arguably makes it the definitive version of the game, especially if you don't care for the complex every-key-on-the-keyboard layout of the computer ports' design. No matter which version you play, though Ultima IV is one you must check out if you're any kind of serious RPG fan.